A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a dog training franchise business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link.
The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.
The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them, including the following:
- “Positive relationship”
- “Lasting emotional bond”
- “Communicate effectively”
- “Consistency and natural techniques”
- “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
- “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
- “Happy lifelong buddy”
Sounds pretty good, so far, except for the fact that they don’t mention exactly how they help you achieve all this. But there are a few more red flags:
- “Pack leader”
- “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
- “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”
Hmm, thanks to the analyses of those who have made a study of how to judge dog trainers by their own descriptions of what they do, we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.
- Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
- Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers from Bark Busters are probably not going to spend any time building training relationships or “setting the dog up for success” if they are in such a hurry. (I’m not saying that training with positive reinforcement or counter conditioning necessarily takes longer. But teaching alternative behaviors rather than suppressing the problems takes a little work on the front end, mostly on the human side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar and can show immediate, although temporary, results.)
- Without treats? Oh-oh.
- Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table, and of course the company is the one defining what constitutes the harshness of the punishment, not the dogs.
So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use to help create that lasting emotional bond with their happy lifelong buddy. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags to throw (not thrown at the dogs to hurt them, just thrown nearby to scare them). They also teach a special growly way to yell at one’s dog.
The items in the photo were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.
Added note, 4/9/14: Several commenters have said that the air horns and penny cans are not part of Bark Busters’ tools or kit. To be perfectly clear: The disc shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. However, the air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. So I maintain my stance that these are all tools used by Bark Busters. Some more commonly than others, perhaps.
The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.
Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking
The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign that the dog is stressed. But then it goes on to say, in the very first bullet point, that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.
You can be pretty sure that a company that advertises that it uses no treats does not employ desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and mostly widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.
There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is that dogs should properly be watchdogs; that they can come to distinguish true threats to your family (it doesn’t say how); and that any other barking is not useful to humans and is “nuisance” barking. The use of the word “nuisance” seems to imply one of the tenets held by believers in rank reduction: that when your dog exhibits a problem behavior, he is challenging your authority. (The flyer mentions that it is a real problem if a puppy barks back at you while being “corrected vocally.”) The flyer includes the following:
As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…
So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you get a dog who will be an asset: it will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been successfully punished for barking, will magically know that in the stranger danger situation (and only then), barking and protection are suddenly desirable.
The idea that dogs can intuitively recognize truly threatening humans dies hard, even in the force free training community. I have no doubt that there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, many breeds have been selectively bred for protection.
But I’m sorry, that probably doesn’t go for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. Once I learned how many things the average undersocialized dog is bothered by, I let go of the idea that the average dog can safely make decisions about whom to object to. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that anybody is promulgating the idea that dogs as a general rule can make decisions about when aggression might be acceptable.
This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home.
A trainer friend points out that although Bark Busters mentions demand barking in the list of problems, they fail to point out that that is generally created and certainly maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. But that fact doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. And the result is especially sad. As long as the humans don’t become aware of the ways that they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive attention and harsh treatment alternately for the same behavior.
The Biggest Myth
I’m afraid the biggest myth involved with Bark Busters is the idea that the training methods they appear to use are benign ones. Using some very basic premises about learning theory, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.
If you throw things in your dog’s direction, spray them, and/or make sudden, extremely loud noises (either with an air horn, a penny can, or by growly yelling):
- Your dog is quite likely to become scared of you;
- Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
- Or scared of the area in which this happened;
- Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
- Your dog may shut down in general, as behaviors are suppressed without alternatives being reinforced.
- Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
- Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is very common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly with the aversive. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to appear effective. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them, no matter what the instructions are.
Oh and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just get rid of it momentarily):
- You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
- You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above). Barking is a natural dog behavior and very difficult to suppress successfully.
Our best friends, and all animals, deserve better than this.
Note: I have not hired Bark Busters nor have I been exposed to their training. This post is based on what they say about themselves in their promotional materials, the tools they promote, and deductions (informed by principles of learning theory) about the general, known effects of such tools. I have also read that there are some individual Bark Busters trainers who eschew these methods.
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